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Bill Warfield: Of Spinning Wheels and Turning Points

For the veteran trumpeter and bandleader, it all comes back to Lew Soloff

Bill Warfield
Bill Warfield (photo by John Abbott)

A sturdy lead trumpeter, ensemble-juggling bandleader, writer of renown, and longtime head of the jazz program at Lehigh University, Bill Warfield, 66, seems to embody the ideal of the musical multi-hyphenate. But it all could have turned out so differently. A little over 50 years ago, two car accidents derailed Warfield’s progress on the trumpet. The first, in May of his senior year of high school, knocked his front teeth out; the second, 11 months later, left him with a punctured left lung—and music wound up taking a back seat to the coming realities of adulthood. Thoughts of the U.S. Air Force flashed through his teenage mind, but the airwaves had other plans: While driving down the road with a date by his side, Warfield was awestruck and had to pull over when he heard Lew Soloff’s trumpet solo on “Spinning Wheel,” the now-classic Blood, Sweat & Tears number, for the first time. “That was a real turning point in my life,” he reflects. “That’s when I said, ‘I want to play the trumpet again.’”

There was no way to know it at the time, but Soloff would go on to play a crucial role in Warfield’s career. “I studied with Lew when I went to the Manhattan School of Music [for my master’s degree], he played on the dates when I started my big band, and he encouraged me to do the writing for my projects,” he explains. Not surprisingly, then, Soloff’s sudden passing in 2015 had a major impact on his friend and protégé. “Completely crushed” by that loss, Warfield sought out the opportunity to pay tribute, ultimately coming full circle by orchestrating the very solo that brought him back to the horn for an all-star big-band tribute. It didn’t end there; his latest release—2018’s For Lew, a compilation containing previously released and unreleased materialhighlights Soloff’s brilliance in a big-band setting while also showcasing Warfield’s own manifold skills.

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